Tuesday, March 24, 2009

In The Beginning

I recently got a query from a writer with an age-old question:


Figuring out where and when to start the story is always a challenge for me, and then sorting out the rest of the mess afterwards.

I’ve gone back and re-read two of your pertinent posts from Alien Romance blog-




If there are more, I missed them. Both were enormously helpful, along with Blake Snyder’s book and all the lessons I’ve accumulated on structuring a story.

Here’s my dilemma-

The story is a Science Fiction Romance, specifically for Young Adults. The story is driven by the Heroine. She starts the fire she can’t put out. I know when, where, and how. The whole story is there. As it is, the Hero doesn’t come in until at least chapter three. The first person I meet after the Heroine is the Villain. I’m told that’s a no-no in the Romance genre. The main plot is the conflict started by them with the Hero coming in with his own agenda which happens to mesh with hers. The Hero’s goal proves unattainable and by the end he’s assumed a partnership with the Heroine in resolving her conflict. The final scene is them resolving to attain his goal next. Somehow, this doesn’t all seem compatible with genre conventions and I’m not sure how to sort it out. I think I’ve mentioned I always write in Threes - Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis. I didn’t realize that until you pointed it out to me long time ago. Maybe my solution is already here, but I just can’t see it.

Any advice, articles, or books to suggest?


OK let's work this problem.

It's of the SFR genre. Linnea Sinclair recently led a hot discussion on goodreads.com in the Paranormal Romance section about whether SFR belongs in Paranormal or not.

One thing came out of that discussion which has surfaced any number of times in various discussions, and is a firm belief of every professional editor I know.

Romance genre readers of all sub-genres and mixed genre Romance demand an HEA - a Happily Ever After ending.

SF readers demand that the HERO WINS in the end, i.e. attains his goal.

If the Hero loses or can't win definitively, then it's NOT SF. It's most likely HORROR GENRE because Horror genre requires an equivocal ending at best. The hero must survive, but NOT PREVAIL.

That is the essential difference between Star Trek and Space 1999, for example.

Star Trek portrayed a universe in which human competence would not only survive but prevail. Love prevails. In Space 1999, the game is rigged against the heros and the most they can do is survive.

Most of the fiction marketed as SF on TV is actually not SF but Horror.

Horror Romance became a kind of genre too -- Jurassic Park for example. The Vampire Romance started out as horror, too.

When you mix two genres, the strongest will prevail, if they're not equal.

When you experience horror in real life, your libido is temporarily shunted out of the brain circuitry and survival takes over.

So there are certain mixtures of genre that won't "work" one way, but do work another. You can have Horror with a romance in it. But you can't have Romance with real Horror Genre in it. (horrible things can happen in a Romance, but they're in the story, not the plot).

Romance is about a mood, as is Horror.
Fiction that breaks mood isn't enjoyable. So Horror and Romance don't mix well. Note that in Vampire Romance, the mixture quickly took the genre way out of the Horror genre by morphing the Vampire into the Good Guy Vampire.

The mixing of SF and Romance though is a natural combination where either can be the dominant force. Which you want to dominate depends on which audience you want to reach.

In the case of YA, it's a judgement call that changes as fast as teens change their minds.

However, I suspect that the Romance will have a bigger teen audience than the SF because that's the trend in the world.

Luckily for crafting the beginning of this novel we're discussing, both SF and Romance demand that the HERO SUCCEED IN THE END just as the Romance demands an HEA.

Now the title of this piece is In The Beginning -- so why am I starting by harping on the Ending?

Because the ending is implicit in the beginning.

You can't craft a beginning without determining the ending.

That doesn't mean the writer has to know the ending before starting to write. It means that when you get done writing, the ending has to match the beginning. The conflict started on page 1 must be resolved on the last page.
The middle, likewise is determined by the beginning and/or the ending. The three points in the novel must match each other AND the genre template or trope.

Using the knowledge of how the beginning, middle and end must relate to each other, you can arrange almost any story into almost any genre. It all depends on WHERE you begin the story!

So let's assume this story really is a YA SFR story.

That means that the ENDING must satisfy two separate but compatible criteria

a) it must be an HEA (the couple must march off into the sunrise holding hands)

b) it must have the HERO SUCCEED at his original goal set out on page 1.

c) both endings require the MIDDLE be the lowest point in both their lives

d) with a low middle and high ending, that means the BEGINNING must be a high point in their lives, full of hope and anticipation of easily attaining good things in life. HOPE and CONFIDENCE are the Beginning keynotes in both genres.

The story description says:

The Hero’s goal proves unattainable and by the end he’s assumed a partnership with the Heroine in resolving her conflict.

AND THERE IS THE ERROR that makes it so hard to "sort" this story into the YA SFR genre.

"the hero's goal proves unattainable"

To be SF, it must be proven attainable, and in fact in the end attained.

THEREFORE, change the hero's goal, or change whatever is preventing the attainment. Or change his goal at the mid-point where he attains goal #1 but is not satisfied and sets out after goal #2.

The formula you need here to blend the SF and the Romance is really simple but it may mean changing your characters.

In a Romance, the CONFLICT is always between the Hero and the Heroine -- they define the axis of conflict.

One hot romance formula involves the two of them after the same limited resource and fighting for it (such as two people who want the same promotion).

Another involves hate-at-first-sight (Sharon Green does this marvelously well).

Another involves a fated attraction to each other in conflict with career paths that demand they live in different places (bi-coastal romances) or that one travel incessantly ( marrying a rock star).

That's why the hero and the heroine must meet pretty much in chapter one, if not paragraph one of a romance -- they are the conflict axis. The story begins where the conflict does. The plot begins where the conflict does.

The formula for crafting an opening of any story is simply that the story starts where the elements that will conflict to generate the plot first come in contact.

The essence of story is conflict. All STORY ENDINGS require that the conflict started on page 1 be RESOLVED on the last page.

That's true even in horror genre where the resolution is that there is no resolution. Note that in one of her posts to http://www.aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/ Linnea Sinclair who writes SF Romance mixed genre pointed out that one of her biggest plotting challenges was to craft (in the space of one book) two endings right on top of each other -- the SF ending and the Romance ending.

Let's try to achieve that here.

So if this is actually YA Horror (like Buffy the Vampire Slayer) then the ENDING of this story is the point where the Hero realizes his goal is unattainable, and the heroine is walking off into the sunset by herself. The horror ending can be left dangling like that -- we don't know if he'll go after her and offer that partnership.

Such a horror ending goes well with a first person narrative so that in the end the reader has to decide if they were the hero would they go after her or not.
Yet another way to organize a story around a hero who has set himself a goal which is unattainable is to revise the goal so that it is unattainable BY HIM or by himself alone.

It may be that he needs help. Or that he needs the specific help of the heroine (with whom he does not get along! At all.)

So that in order to attain his goal he must confess his emotional vulnerability to the woman whom he fears the most, whose rath unmans him, whose goal is to destroy him, whose power exceeds his by orders of magnitude (the gladiator to the princess). That's the essence of intimate adventure.

So the Hero's story STARTS with him swearing a sacred oath to do THIS or die trying.

The MIDDLE (of the book and the hero's story) is where he realizes that he can't do this -- not that THE GOAL IS UNATTAINABLE but that HE CAN'T ATTAIN IT.) He is foresworn. For that to mean anything, the first half of the book has to show don't tell why his oath, his word of honor, or his self-esteem is rooted wholly in attaining this goal all by himself, on his own, without help. The psych profile has to be shown dramatically in backstory about why he refuses to accept help from anyone, least of all HER.

The END of the Hero's story is his ATTAINING HIS GOAL -- but usually, by that time the goal isn't very important to him. It's an afterthought. An anti-climax. A loose end to wrap up in a denoument.

The beginning of the Heroine's story is where she meets the Hero and swears to herself (or her confidant) (or maybe to the hero) that she will marry this man, nab him for herself despite the competition, that HE IS HER GOAL.

The middle of her story (and of the book) is where she realizes she can never have him, and if she got him she wouldn't want him because he's so wrapped up in his stupid goal that he can't see her for his own ego. It's over. (maybe this is where she's been kidnapped and held for a ransom that will not be paid so she decides to throw her life away trying to escape rather than betray all she holds dear. In fact, you may have put the event that belongs in the MIDDLE of her story at the BEGINNING of his story -- you may have to slide one story against the other until their peaks and valleys match.)

She escapes by her own intelligence, trickiness, whatever character trait contrasts starkly with whatever character trait has the Hero obsessing on HIS OWN GOAL. Her character trait that lets her escape the Villain has to be the one trait he thinks he hates about her but it is really what has him head over heels in love with her.

So, meanwhile, he's given up pursuing his personal goal and is heading in to rescue her at considerable self sacrifice for abandoning his goal.

The end of HER STORY is where the Hero confesses his innermost fears to her, his pain at losing his goal, the destruction of his Identity and sense of Honor, thus proving he's not that egotistical he couldn't turn into a real husband with a little work.

Now here's where plotting comes in. The sequence of events, the things each of them does that causes the other to do something, the because line, has to end in a situation where His rescuing Her (even though she's escaped of her own accord which probably makes him mad) actually presents him with his unattainable goal.

Neither one of them has done anything directly to CAUSE this goal to be attained. It's an ACT OF GOD that the goal drops into his lap. And the ironic twist of High Drama is that it no longer seems so important to him.

That makes the theme LOVE CONQUERS ALL which is the theme of the genre Romance. Romance is Divine, an Act of God.

They are soul mates. All this tangled plot is the finger of God tying the knot in their lives.

Do you think you can let go of some element that came to you with this story idea in order to craft the idea into an SFR YA?

Post a new summary if you decide to rearrange the story, or let me know when you sell this thing.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

WorldBuilding - Trunk-ated

This is an exercise in WORLDBUILDING.

This exercise takes off from my blog post

followed by my blog post

The theory is to select the story you want to tell, then wrap the world around it. Create the background and backstory to support what you want your story to say.

What your story says is your theme.

Take the following opening scene, use Blake Snyder's Beat Sheet (which works for novels as well as for films) and create the rest of this plot in single line, half-sentence, or even single word entries in the beat sheet.

http://www.blakesnyder.com/tools/ is where to download the beat sheet. It's currently item #2 in the list there. There is an example of a famous movie fitted into this beat sheet lower down that page.

Write a couple of paragraphs sketching the Worldbuilding around the plot.

For example: if your beat sheet calls for Trish, the lead female, to die and return as a ghost to haunt the guy who killed her, your worldbuilding notes would say that ghosts are real and can communicate with the living, maybe give rules for how a ghost could affect the solid world.

Post the result as a comment here on this blog.

---------Story Opening ------------
Title: Trunk-ated
by Jacqueline Lichtenberg
Permissions: Use Freely to do this Worldbuilding exercise

Trish clenched her fists which were tied behind her and kicked hard with her legs tied at the ankle and knee. Her face inched closer to the open lock of her car's trunk. Her nose entered a shaft of sunlight.

She squinted up at her captor who smirked down at her. When her captor's attention flicked aside, she spat her chewing gum into the lock and prayed.

Back turned, her captor slammed the trunk lid which caught with an odd thwunk sound.

She lay in the pitch dark, smelling every pizza she'd ever carried in the trunk of her 1962 Cadillac and blessed the writers of the TV Series Forever Knight. Finally, she heard the crunch of gravel under booted feet, then silence.

She calmed herself then summoned a sparkle of power to her fingertips. She twisted her fingers until she had a bit of rope between them. With a tiny, delicate push, she burned the rope, scorched her flesh, burned some more and severed the rope.

Nearby, a truck engine turned over with a ragged cough. The truck gunned onto the highway and dopplered away. Silence. Not even one passing car.

With a heave and a squirm, Trish freed her hands, burned through the ropes at her knees and ankles then levered her back up against the trunk lid. She bounced the Caddy on its shocks to free the latch. She thought she'd suffocate before it gave, made a mental note to get the interior catch release changed, and finally, the lid swung up trailing a long strand of gum.

She ashed the gum with a flash of power, slammed the lid and strode the length of the car, one hand trailing the upswept fin. Local urban legend had it this car had two hundred fifty ghosts under the hood and vampire blood in the tank. It was a whole lot more than that.

---------End Opening--------------

HINTS: Answer the questions raised as you read this opening.
a) who is Trish?
b) who tied her up?
c) who put her in the trunk of her car?
d) why was she left beside a deserted road instead of killing her?
e) how did she come to drive a 1962 Caddy - and is it REALLY just a classic Caddy?
f) does she do "magic" or is her fire just ESP? Is there a demon or familiar involved?
g) does the Caddy conceal an A.I.?
h) is Trish actually human? Or an alien from outer space? Alternate Universe? Elf?
i) was that actually chewing gum?
j) if she has such "powers" -- how and why did she let herself be captured and tied up?
k) was there an accomplice lurking behind her captor? Had they captured someone else when they captured her? Was it the someone else who was being kidnapped?
l) what will Trish do about the guy who tied her up?
m) what is her internal conflict? Her external conflict? Is her captor really her enemy or a double agent she didn't want to uncover?
n) what is her objective? Will she succeed?
o) maybe change the title to fit your theme

Note how this and many more questions are carefully NOT answered but only raised by this opening. This is a demonstration of the technique I have discussed on the Alien Romance blog which I call Information Feed. First make the reader curious; then provide answers dispersed amid the action.

Yes, you may rewrite this opening for this exercise. But you'll learn more by doing the exercise based on this opening. What is not-included in this opening is easily as important as what is included. The lack of certain information is as important as the presence of what is there.

Playing with this exercise will sharpen your ability to create this kind of open textured springboard for a story with a complex backstory and background.

You may post your "beats" of the plot and your Worldbuilding paragraphs in the comments section of this blog where others may comment or post other visions of what this story could become.

You may do one version of this story as SCIENCE FICTION and another as FANTASY and/or another as PARANORMAL ROMANCE -- or even SCIENCE FICTION ROMANCE.

See how the same story can scroll out against the different backgrounds and end up qualifying in another genre.

You may decide to do this exercise and not post the results here but instead use it in your own novel.

After you finish the exercise, take a universe that you know well and have fleshed out in detail and write a story opening patterned on this one -- designed to spark questions in the reader's mind by not-saying many of the most important things about your universe.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg